Saturday, November 12, 2016

Taking a Break

Dear George,
It's four days since the election, and I seem to be feeling worse rather than better.  I usually try to post things on this blog that are light-hearted and amusing, but there's nothing light-hearted or amusing nowadays.  My mood state vacillates between anger and despair, and neither is congenial to writing or communicating.  I'm just going to take a break for a while.  Maybe a couple of weeks, maybe longer.  (I hope not for four years.)  I expect to get back to writing no later than mid-January, probably before.  Till then, I think we should all search for something hopeful in the wreckage.


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dark Days

Dear George,
The election results, of course, are unexpected and astonishing.  There are lots of possible interpretations and meanings.  Like most people I know, my opinion is that the forces of ignorance and hatred, sexism and racism, have triumphed in the American electorate.  If Trump’s blustery stances hold true, there are likely disastrous consequences for every sector of the society (the economy, international relations, the Supreme Court, climate change, women’s rights, health care, race relations, social inequality, immigration reform, etc., etc.)  Hillary Clinton graciously said, “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”  That is gracious, and we will work toward accepting that advice, at least for the immediate future.  In the meantime, Katja has vowed to leave the country, and I find myself retreating into my private cave.  I tried to find something positive to hold onto in the last 24 hours.  Perhaps Trump’s victory will be less horrible than had it been an ideologue like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.  Probably the sole positive is that there will be plenty of fodder for late-night comedians.  That’s about it.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Wildflowers on the Menominee River

Dear George,
I was surprised a while back when I ran across a newspaper article that said that recent editions of the Oxford Junior Dictionary have deleted about 50 items referring to nature and replaced them with contemporary, often technology-related words.   According to an editor, references to various aspects of nature in earlier editions had been included “because many children lived in semi-rural environments…Nowadays, the environment has changed.”*  Newly added words include things like blog, broadband, cut and paste, voicemail, and chatroom.  Words deleted by the Oxford Junior Dictionary include: acorn, beaver, beech, blackberry, bluebell, brook, buttercup, clover, dandelion, doe, fern, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark,  minnow, otter, pansy, pasture, porcupine, raven, starling, sycamore, thrush, tulip, vine, weasel,  willow, and wren.  What is that about, Oxford Junior Dictionary??? 

Having grown up in the country in Michigan’s U.P., I’ve often realized how much nature provided the context for much of our everyday lives.  Lacking TV, the internet, electronic devices in general, and attractions of the big city, we spent most of our leisure time in outdoor play in the forest or river.  I’m often struck by how different our rural childhood was to what kids experience nowadays.  There’s a cartoon in the paper today showing a little kid in a sandbox, screaming hysterically, “iPad!  iPad!”  Being addicted to the computer, I can easily relate to that.  However, I’m equally aware of how immersed our childhood experiences were in the world of nature.  Here are some of the wildflowers at our family property on the Menominee River that were important parts of our everyday activities.  

Trillium, one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring, was among my mother’s favorites.  It grew at Brewery Park, several hundred yards to the east of our house along the river shore.  Trillium have three petals, no odor, and their seeds are transported by bumblebees and white-tailed deer.  Miss Elsie Guimond, the principal of our grade school, also loved the trillium.  When each of the children in our family reached the sixth grade, he or she would bring Miss Guimond a trillium plant when it first bloomed.

Trailing Arbutus
The arbutus was another of my mother’s favorite forest plants.  It grows in early March, spreading along the forest floor and forming a mat about 4 to 6 inches high.  The flowers are white or pink and very fragrant.  Then they’re replaced by white berries.  Native Americans used arbutus to treat rheumatism, indigestion, and kidney problems. 

Ox-eye Daisy (or Common Daisy)
Ox-eye daisies grew in the field just to the west of the garden wall that ran along our front lawn.  Daisies can grow up to three feet high, and they bloom from late spring until autumn.  We and the O’Hara kids would pick a daisy, and then someone would tear off petals one after the next while reciting, “She loves me, she loves me not, she loves me, etc.”  Finally you got to the last petal and learned whether she (or he) does or does not love you.  This game elicited gales of laughter, especially when the other children insisted that the petal-picker announce beforehand who he or she was inquiring about. 

Black-eyed Susans
Black-eyed Susans are similar in shape and size to daisies.  In fact, they are sometimes called yellow ox-eye daisies.  They inhabited the same field next to our house as did the daisies, and we used them as well to play, “She loves me, she loves me not…”  Black-eyed Susans bloom for a month or two between mid- and late summer.  Their leaves are covered with coarse hair.  Native Americans traditionally used them as a medicinal herb for colds, swelling, and even snake-bite.

Queen Anne’s Lace
Many of the wildflowers on our property were entities that we played with or did things with, e.g., pulling off the petals or scattering the seeds in the wind.  Queen Anne’s Lace, though, was simply a flower that we admired for its beauty.  It’s said to have received its name because Queen Anne allegedly pricked her finger and stained her lace with a drop of blood (symbolized by the single red flower surrounded by lacy white blossoms).  The flowers roots are edible, but its appearance is quite similar to hemlock whose poison is reputed to have killed Socrates.  Queen Anne’s lace was prevalent in the field next to our lawn as well as in our back pasture.  It was definitely the most beautiful wildflower on our property.

Blue Violets
Blue violets were among the prettiest and most delicate flowers on our property.  It’s also known as the lesbian flower, the name deriving, according to Wikipedia, from the practice of lesbians in the early 1900’s of giving blue violets to women they were wooing.  Blue violets have five blue or violet petals, and their flowers and leaves can be eaten.  It’s the state flower of Wisconsin. 

The dandelion’s name comes from the French word “dent-de-lion”, meaning “lion’s tooth”.  Dandelions are rich in Vitamins A, C, and K and have been used as human food over the eons.  Dandelions grew all over our front lawn and were another of our outdoor playthings in the summer and fall.  When they’d turn into balls of puffy white seedlings, we’d carefully break off the stalk, hold the flowering portion up to our face, and blow all the seeds into the wind with a mighty breath.  They were sort of like miniature fireworks or tiny parachutes. 

White clover
Lots of white clover grew in our front lawn, interspersed with the grass and various other weeds.  It’s been used for centuries as an additive to salads and other meals.  When we ran out of other things to do, we’d lie down on the lawn and search about for a four-leafed clover.  My recollection is that usually we were eventually successful.  This is probably faulty memory though, since there are about 10,000 three-leaf clover for every single four-leaf clover. 

Wild strawberry
Some of the flowers and plants on our property were good to eat, and that was particularly true of the wild strawberries that grew in the field in back of our house and in nearby forests.  They have a sweet taste, and commercially grown strawberries are actually relatives of the wild strawberry.  Wild strawberries have white flowers in the early summer, followed by red berries that are smaller than their commercial cousins.  Lots of animals and birds eat wild strawberries.  According to Wikipedia, archeologists have determined that human beings have eaten wild strawberries since the Stone Age. 

Wintergreen was another edible plant in the forests near our house, and we liked to chew wintergreen leaves because of the similarity of its taste to chewing gum.  The plant is actually used to produce chewing gum, mints, candy, mouthwash, and even smokeless tobacco.  Native Americans used it to treat headaches, fever, and aches and pains. 

Goldenrods were plentiful in our back-yard field and the pasture across the road from our house, and their brilliant yellow color brightened up our property when they bloomed in late summer and early fall.  We always thought that Goldenrods cause sneezing and sniffly noses, but it turns out that that those problems are mostly due to ragweed which blooms at the same time.  Goldenrods are a favorite source of nectar for butterflies and bees. 

Tall Buttercup
Tall Buttercups are another yellow beauty that grew in fields on our property.  They have long stalks, from one to 3 feet high, and leaves that are about 4 inches long.  Their flowers, about an inch wide, have five or more shiny yellow petals.  Each plant has from several to many separate flowers.  The tall buttercup has a chemical that can cause dermatitis and vomiting.

Red Clover
Red Clover also was widespread in our back pasture.  It’s a favorite of cows, though we didn’t have any in the neighborhood.  Interestingly WebMD lists red clover as a medication, indicating that it has been used for cancer prevention, indigestion, high cholesterol, whooping cough, asthma, bronchitis, and sexually transmitted diseases.  WebMD is neutral about whether or not red clover  works. 

Some of the flowers on our property were practically like toys to us, nothing moreso than the milkweed.  Milkweed gets its name from its milky juice (messy on the hands when one opened them up).  Its seeds are arranged in overlapping rows and have white silky hairs.  By the end of the summer the follicles ripen, split open, and the seeds are blown by the wind.  We would wait till they were fully ripened in late summer, then break the pod off, open it up, wave it in the air, and watch the seeds float about and flutter to the ground like little parachutes.    

Field horsetail
Despite our frequent commerce with field horsetail, I never knew its actual name until I worked on this blog posting.  In childhood we called it “Indian tobacco” because we could break the stalk into its separate cigarette-sized segments, hold it between our lips, and pretend we were smoking.  Horsetail has been used as medicine and for polishing wood.  Apparently it was once the dominant plant on the planet, with some varieties growing as tall as pine trees.

Cattails grow in wet areas like the ditch which bordered our property on Riverside Boulevard.  They can reach ten feet high, though ours were more in a range of five or six feet.  Their long slim stalks are topped off by sausage-shaped spikes that are formed by dense tiny brown flowers.  In the autumn the flowers ripen and turn into a cottony fluff which eventually blows away in the wind.  Birds use their seed hairs to line their nests.  Cattails were a thrilling part of our childhood.  In mid to late summer my father would have us gather a dozen or so cattails along the road.  We would store them in the garage for six to eight weeks until they were dried out.  Then, on the appointed night in the autumn, we’d come out, soak the cattails’ fluffy heads in kerosene and set them ablaze, racing in circles around the driveway.  I can think of few events more exciting in life.

I’m sure there were many other wildflowers on our property that I’m not remembering, but this is a sampling of the major ones.  Now I’m nostalgic about our outdoor world.

*, “Children’s Dictionary Dumps ‘Nature’ Words” (Feb. 4, 2009);, “Dictionary Drama” (Sept. 24, 2015)

SOURCES:  Google Images; (“Michigan Wildflowers”); (“Upper Peninsula Native Plants”);; (“Common Wildflowers of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula”)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

All Hallows Eve: A Villanelle

Dear George,
Here is a poem to celebrate the season.  Villanelles were first popularized by French poets in the nineteenth century.  They are 19-line poems that only use two rhymes (“ite” and “air” in my poem below).  There are five three-line stanzas, followed by a final four-line stanza.  The first and third lines of stanza #1 are repeated, on an alternating basis, as the third line of each of the subsequent three-line stanzas.  Both lines are included at the end of the final four-line stanza.  Villanelles are a tricky business, as you might guess.

            All Hallows Eve: A Villanelle 

The wind turns chill and whistles through the night
Tricksters in masks scurry everywhere
Halloween eve, time for thrills and fright

A pirate and a banshee wait for the light
A witch casts her spell, they stop to stare
The wind turns chill and whistles through the night

Vampires hug shadows, ready to bite
A child screams out, “Bloodsuckers!  Beware!”
Halloween eve, time for thrills and fright

A bumblebee clutches his lantern bright
Wails of lone wolves pervade the dark air
The wind turns chill and whistles through the night

A swarm of zombies lurches into sight
Returning to Earth from a spooky nightmare
Halloween eve, time for thrills and fright

Bags full, kids return to their porches bright
Greeted by mothers and fathers there
The wind turns chill and whistles through the night
Halloween eve, time for thrills and fright

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Heroes of My Youth

Dear George,
While family and friends have enormous influence on who we become as persons, the larger culture also provides us with a potpourri of heroes and heroines who epitomize the society’s values and provide role models for behavior.  Many of these figures take on an almost tangible presence in one’s life.  For example, I probably knew more in childhood about Dick Tracy or Batman than I did about many neighbors and acquaintances.  To get a better handle on these role models, here are some of the “heroes” that I recall as important to me between the ages of eight and twelve (mid to late 1940’s). 

Captain Marvel
I did a lot of reading as a child, and many of my heroes came from books, either about historical figures, e.g., Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, or fictional creations, e.g., Robinson Crusoe, Paul Bunyan, Huckleberry Finn.  My true passion, though, was comic books.  My Uncle Kent’s Rexall drugstore was a half block from my grade school, and I’d eat lunch there on schooldays and stop in again after school.  Kent allowed me to read all the store’s comic books as long as I took them back to his office and didn’t bend any pages.  There were, of course, many heroes – Superman, Batman and Robin, the Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Plastic Man, the Green Lantern, etc.  My favorite, though, was Captain Marvel (a.k.a, Billy Batson).  Like Superman, Captain Marvel possessed superman strength, speed, and the ability to fly.  Teenager Batson would transform himself into Captain Marvel by uttering the magic word, Shazam.  “Shazam” stood for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.  Captain Marvel, of course, battled evil-doers of all sorts.  In 1944 Captain Marvel was the most popular comic book hero in the U.S. beating out Superman and all the others.  More recently Wizard Magazine ranked Captain Marvel the 55th greatest comic book character of all time, but, in my mind, he will always be number one.  

Hopalong Cassidy
In grade school my friends and I went to weekend matinees at the Menominee Theater (the old opera house) and the Lloyd Theater, as well as Thursday afternoon films at the D.A.R. Boys’ Club.  Most of the main features were cowboy westerns, featuring Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, and others.  Roy Rogers was the king of the cowboys, but, because he and Gene Autry always included singing in their movies, my friends and I preferred Hopalong Cassidy.  Hoppy had white hair, wore black clothes and a black hat, and rode a magnificent white horse named Topper.  Gabby Hayes played his sidekick, Windy Halliday.  Hoppy had astonishing skills with his six-shooter and lariat, and I don’t think he ever lost a fistfight, even against four or five villains at once.  Like other cowboy heroes, he acted on behalf of honest citizens who were being preyed upon by criminal gangs and rogues. 

The Shadow
TV, of course, didn’t exist in the Twin Cities during my grade school years.  Instead, my siblings and I huddled around the family radio in our living room, especially on Sunday nights.  My favorite shows were comedies – Jack Benny, Fred Allen, the Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee and Molly, Duffy’s Tavern, etc. – though these didn’t feature “heroes” as we normally think of them.  However, the detective/mystery radio dramas all featured great heroes of the era, e.g., Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, Boston Blackie, the Shadow, the Saint, the Thin Man, etc.  My favorite was the Shadow, who possessed “the power to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him.”  The Shadow’s real name was Lamont Cranston, “a wealthy young man about town,” and he and his love interest, socialite Margo Lane, took on villains of all sorts.  Every show began with the statement, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.”  That invariably sent shudders up and down our spines.

President Harry S. Truman
World War II had an enormous impact on children in our community.  I was five when the U.S. entered the war in 1942 and was about to enter third grade when the war ended in August, 1945.  My dad was in the Navy in the Pacific.  We learned about wartime events from family, from radio and the Movietone News, and from our teachers and the Weekly Reader at school.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, of course, was a central leader of the allies’ efforts in World War II, and consequently the nation was shocked and frightened when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945.  His vice-presidential successor, Harry Truman, was a relatively obscure senator from Missouri who had run a haberdashery in Kansas City before beginning his political career.  Despite controversy that continues to the present day about Truman’s decision to unleash the atomic bomb, he was credited with bringing the war to an end.  We children, whose fathers would soon be coming home, regarded him as a hero who had risen to the occasion.  Unpopular in his day, Truman was recently ranked fifth among U.S. presidents in a C-Span poll.

Don Hutson
Many of the heroes of my childhood, of course, were college and professional athletes.  Menominee is located 45 miles north of Green Bay, and the adults and kids in our community were avid members of Packerland.  The Packers had won NFL championships in 1936, 1939, and 1944, thanks in good part to their star player, split end Don Hutson.  Historians of the game conclude that Hutson created many of the modern pass routes used in the NFL today.  During Hutson’s eleven seasons with the Packers, he was an eight-time All-Pro selection and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player twice.  By the time of his retirement in 1945, Hutson held nearly every major NFL receiving record, including career receptions, yards gained, and touchdowns.  He still holds the Packers’ record for most receptions in a game.  We kids playing touch football at Triangle Park all pretended to be Don Hutson when we ran out for a pass.   

George Mikan
When I entered sixth grade at Washington Grade School, my grandfather insisted that I join the school basketball team.  It scared the wits out of me, but, within a few months, I became totally devoted to learning the game.  My brother Steve and I played endlessly in our driveway.  The nearest professional team was the Minneapolis Lakers, and the local radio station broadcast their games.  Their star was George Mikan, a six-foot ten-inch center who dominated the professional game and who was known as “Mr. Basketball.”  This was long before the era of big men in basketball, very tall players being regarded as lacking athletic ability and unlikely to perform adequately at a professional level.  Mikan was so dominant that he caused several major rule changes in the NBA, most notably the ban on goaltending, the widening of the foul lane from 6 to 12 feet, and the introduction of the shot clock.  Mikan was regarded as a “Gentle Giant,” fierce on the court but friendly and personable in private life.  I’ve watched basketball on and off over the decades, but there’s never been anybody as thrilling to me as the great George Mikan.

Joe Louis
My friend Frank St. Peter was a boxing fanatic, and, with his encouragement, I started listening to the Friday Night Fights on the radio each week.  The late 1940’s were a golden age of boxing, with the likes of Rocky Marciano, Ezzard Charles, Jake LaMotta, Jersey Joe Walcott, and Sugar Ray Robinson.  The greatest of all, however, was the “Brown Bomber”, heavyweight champion Joe Louis.  Born in rural Alabama in 1914, the grandchild of former slaves, Louis was the number one contender in the heavyweight division by 1935, and he won the title against James J. Braddock on June 22, 1937.  He was world heavyweight champion for the next twelve years, scoring 52 knockouts in 70 professional fights.  Ring Magazine rated Louis #1 on its list of the “100 Greatest Punchers of All-Time,” and he is widely regarded at the first African American to gain the status of a nationwide hero in the U.S.   Frank and I were thrilled with Joe Louis’s power and invincibility, and he was near the top of my list of heroes.  

I look at my list with some nostalgia and still have twinges of admiration for the various entries.  I do note that all of my childhood heroes were male, though this was probably typical for a boy.  Girls of my age might have included Wonder Woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Brenda Starr, and others.  The culture’s offerings of heroes and heroines for children probably has more to do with the reinforcement of stereotypic gender roles than with anything else.  When I look over my list the themes cutting across the various figures seem particularly heavy on attributes that our culture has traditionally deemed “masculine”: e.g., dominance, achievement, leadership, competition, strength.  Many of these “heroes” excelled in capacities for physical aggression and violence, though always channeled in socially legitimate directions.  There are few that I would characterize as high in empathy, emotional expressiveness, nurturance, or interpersonal skills.  That could be because I grew up in a historical era marked by rigidly defined gender roles.  I don’t have any sense of who little kids’ heroes and heroines are today.  I’ll have to check with our grandkids.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Seasons on the Menominee

Dear George,
My Poetry Writing Workshop is back in full swing, so I've been re-inspired.  Our first assignment was to write a poem drawing upon the five senses.  I picked my favorite topic and came up with the following result.

Seasons on the Menominee


The ice on the river broke up in mid-spring 
The clattering crystals produced a dull roar
On shore we’d watch what the current might bring 
A bucket, a rope, a boat’s single oar

By May Pig Island turned pale green 
The trillium blossomed at Brewery Park 
Violets and buttercups lit up the scene
Downriver at night we could hear a dog bark

Too cool for swimming, we’d take our green boat
Searching for treasure in a neighbor’s lagoon
Sometimes we’d stop to relax and just float
Listening to the cries of a heron or loon

Swimming began by the first week in June
Steven was always the first to dive in
The shock of the water made young kiddies swoon
We marveled at the goosebumps that dotted our skin 

We swam underwater with eyes open wide           
The view was gritty, distorted, and brown
Sounds were muffled and warped by the tide
We held our breath and worked to stay down

Snapping turtles were life’s greatest fear
They’d swim by at dusk, their noses breathing air
Underwater we feared that these monsters were near
We’d splash away with a shudder and a prayer


Pig Island exploded with colors galore 
The birch were golden, the maples deep red 
At twilight we’d spot two deer on the shore
Or find their shed antlers in the forest instead

The weather turned cool, time for swimming now over
The smell of burnt leaves filled the autumn air 
We searched on the lawn for a four-leaf clover
The sunsets on the river were a glitzy affair

We gathered cattails from the river’s shore
Then left them to dry for eight long weeks
We set them on fire with a joyful roar
And raced round the drive with howls and shrieks


The river in winter was enveloped in white 
And oaks in the forest had shed all their leaves
The sun on the snow was uncomfortably bright
Huge icicles stretched to the earth from the eaves

Tiny chickadees dined at my mother’s feeder
Squirrels gathered lost seeds from the ground
The deer came at midnight to nibble our cedar
The howl of the wind made a ghostly sound

We shoveled the ice for a skating rink 
And built large forts for a snowball fight 
We’d stop by the house for a hot chocolate drink
Then back to the river in the waning light


It’s sixty years since I lived on the river
It’s as fresh in my mind as the day that I left
Poems about rivers always make my heart quiver
That may well explain why I’m feeling bereft